Monday, October 26, 2015

The Phrase 'Torture Porn' Needs to Die Already, Because We’re Butchering It

The term “torture porn” has been used and abused since David Edelstein coined it in his review of Hostel back in 2006, referring to, among other things, the “money shots” he believes horror fans flock to theaters to see. What seemed a nebulous concept from the beginning (did Edelstein mean to imply that horror fans were getting some form of sexual pleasure from scenes of graphic violence? or was he merely incorporating the word “porn” as a condescending pejorative?) has morphed into something completely meaningless over the years, a phrase thrown by critics and detractors at any horror movie they simply don’t like. In a world where “shoe porn,” “food porn,” and “real estate porn” exist, I know I shouldn’t be sensitive about this inane phrase, but as a habitual watcher of horror, I am.

Take Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film that recently picked up quite a bit of hype on the festival trail, for instance. It’s the story of twin brothers who are convinced that their mother, recovering at home from reconstructive surgery after an ambiguous accident, is not really their mother. It’s a simple, human story, beautifully rendered and filled with evocative images that capture the characters’ feelings and simultaneously unnerve the viewer. It’s just barely a horror movie, though; more of a drama or psychological thriller, it's merely peppered with some of the signposts of horror. One of those signposts, however, is literally a scene in which one character is tortured.

Cue the outraged and operatic cries of “torture porn,” in one of the cases where I truly - if naively - didn't see it coming. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure that there is a valid use for the term. However, if I were to apply it to any movie, I suppose I’d apply it to movies like those in the Saw franchise, where torture and gore has become the raison d’etre of the film itself, in lieu of plot or characterization. How that is different from most of the slashers and exploitation films of the seventies and eighties (many of which are revered today), I’m not sure. (Edelstein claims that in those older movies, the characters were “interchangeable” and “expendable,” and the characters in these newer “torture porn” movies are not. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone consider good writing a detriment.) Goodnight Mommy is just the “torture porn” witch of the moment; I could point to at least ten other films that have been stamped with that moniker time and again, and give at least ten reasons why I disagree with each instance.

Although there is literal torture shown in Goodnight Mommy, I would not – could not – categorize the
movie as “torture porn.” The torture scene was intense and difficult to watch, certainly – at one point I actually said out loud, “I can’t handle this!” while throwing my hands in front of my eyes, albeit briefly – but I find myself hard-pressed to claim that the violence was gratuitous, assuming one is even remotely aware of the conventions of the horror genre and the methods used to elicit emotion therein. Rather, the violence was present in service of the story it was telling. I won’t go into details for fear of giving too much away, but the film deals with difficult subjects, from grief to paranoia and beyond, and horror has long been one medium for exploring those dark subjects. Perhaps it’s not the medium everyone would choose to examine those issues, but does that make the attempt, or the feelings it does manage to provoke, any less valid?

Edelstein, and many others, might very well say yes. The people who most often toss around the term “torture porn” are those who typically don’t like, “get,” or even watch horror films, and so I’m not sure those people could ever understand the movies they’re intent on dismissing. Edelstein declares, “As potential victims, we fear serial killers, yet we also seek to identify with their power.” I can’t speak for other horror fans, but I find that statement laughably off the mark. The truth is, even I’m not sure I know every reason I enjoy being scared, but I do know that it’s not because I like to play-act at being a murderer. The fact that so many watchers and lovers of horror are women also points at a larger reality Edelstein is missing. That he would assume to project his own desire for power and need to identify with the killer onto others seems symptomatically male. He fails to consider that viewers, especially women, may identify with the feelings of powerlessness and subjection expressed by the victims, but in a far more manageable way than we are forced to do in daily life.

I like watching things that challenge me, that make me face uncomfortable truths in uncomfortable ways. I like films that force others to face my uncomfortable truths, the truths I identify with but am afraid to speak aloud. I like things that make my heart beat fast, that make me squirm, that make jump out of my seat and run for cover. And I know that after watching a particularly intense horror film, I'm left feeling a kind of relief. It is cathartic, in a way, to feel completely horrified and paralyzed for a concise amount of time, and then be able to turn off the television and walk away.

But that catharsis is of an entirely different sort than the “money shot” Edelstein spoke of in his pivotal review. That’s fine; his experience with horror is rooted in detached moralism. Mine is rooted in my humanity, no matter how messy or offensive you may find it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

When A Twist Isn’t A Twist: Why You Should Plow Through Anyway

There’s a Portlandia sketch about spoilers: four people at a dinner party can’t mutually talk about TV shows for fear of “spoiling” the plot twists for the other guests. The sketch spirals further and further into ridiculousness, as each guest outlines exactly how far they are into various popular series, thus dictating what everyone else is allowed to talk about until no one can talk about anything at all.

This sketch came to mind back when I was watching Goodnight Mommy, a German horror film with a “twist” ending that everyone and his brother lamented for being too obvious, and again as I watched Suspension, part of the 8 Films to Die For released last Friday. The former is a fantastic film, but since I’ve written about it here before, I’m going to focus on the latter.

Emily MacNevin in Suspension.
Suspension is about a high school girl, Emily (Ellen MacNevin), whose father committed some heinous murders in their small town and is now locked up in a mental ward. Within the first scene we learn that Emily is attempting to deal with her tragic past by drawing a gruesome graphic novel of sorts, in which her father is the main character, on the loose and killing again. Unbeknownst to Emily, however, everything she draws in her sketchbook seems to be coming true in the real world.

Suspension telegraphs its “twist” ending within the first fifteen minutes with a single bit of clumsy dialogue. I can’t definitively say whether the filmmakers meant to make the endgame so clear from the beginning, but based on an interview I recently heard with one of them, I’d hazard to guess that they know it’s fairly obvious, but that making it obvious was not their original intention. With that in mind, I have to ask: Does it really matter?

Granted, we all love to be shocked by a truly great twist. I remember the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, back when twist endings weren’t nearly as abundant as they are now, and it seemed like the entire world was taken by surprise by Bruce Willis’s ghostly revelation. Didn’t we all go back through the movie, picking it apart for clues? In fact, the movie itself did a lot of the work for us, treating us like the babes in the twist-ending-woods we were and providing flashbacks of all the evidence we failed to notice the first time around. Today, however, audiences are much savvier and harder to fool. It’s been a long while since a movie has managed to pull the wool over my eyes until the very end.

So although I’m never not jonesing for a film with a truly unpredictable ending, it’s necessarily become far less important to me than the content and effectiveness of the film overall. Because even if a film surprises you with its finale, it’s never going to hold up to a second or third watch if the quality of story isn’t there. Which brings me back to Suspension.

As I said, I’d wager that Suspension gives its ending away for most seasoned horror watchers within a few minutes. For me, though, I kind of considered it a blessing that it was so apparent, because I didn’t have to waste all my energy looking for clues to bolster my hypothesis. While that can be fun, so many good movies get the guts of their stories glossed over and ignored by audiences doing just that. Then, when their theory turns out to be correct, they complain about it being too obvious and never bother to rewatch the movie for what it is – which is, hopefully, more than just a twist ending.

And Suspension is more than its twist: it’s a fun, nasty little horror movie with a lot of heart, some good acting, and some great campy moments. It caught my eye because of the graphic novel angle – which made for some cool scenes, especially at the beginning – and kept my attention throughout, regardless of the fact that I knew what was coming. Ellen MacNevin is excellent as the lead (she gave me some serious Angela Bettis vibes, which is definitely a compliment), and it’s her story that matters through the whole movie, not just where it ends up. The gore and effects are also on-point and a lot of fun, making for a movie that I’m not sorry to have paid to see (which is more than I can say for some of the other horror movies I’ve spent money on lately). It’s not a perfect film, and I might argue that it would have been better had the filmmakers not tried to conceal the ending at all, but its twist, or lack thereof, had little to nothing to do with my assessment or enjoyment of it.

Our culture’s obsession with spoilers - and the spoiler's mother, the twist - has become a bit of a detriment to film and television alike. Sure, we all love to be surprised (the exponential growth of the subscription box industry testifies to that – even as adults, we all clamor at the chance to pay for a shiny new package to open without knowing what’s inside), but relying solely on shock value to make a story interesting, or demanding a shocking ending above all else… seems childish, and beside the point. Good storytelling, period, should be the point. As audience members, it’s also our duty to recognize and reward that when we see it, rather than whine about the fact that we got exactly what we asked for on Christmas morning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

31 Horror Films in 31 Days Challenge - The First Half Highlights

The #31HorrorFilms31Days Challenge is halfway over! In case you haven't been following along on Twitter, you can scroll through the slideshow above to see what I've been watching these last couple weeks (make sure to mouse over the images to see what I had to say about each one). To sum up...

The Good. Highlights so far have been Lyle (full review here), The Final Girls, and Crystal Lake Memories (a doc about all the Friday the 13th movies that I’d never seen before). Lyle is a small slice of modern (dare I say feminist?) horror inspired by Rosemary’s Baby; it’s short but packs a wallop and a lot to think about. The Final Girls is a horror comedy that won me over despite being a horror comedy (and that’s not easy, let me tell you). Aside from those, nothing new has really stuck with me as of yet, but I did watch a lot of oldies but goodies – some Friday the 13th movies, The House of the Devil, All Cheerleaders Die. Oh, and I finally got to see Witch’s Brew, which is a low budget horror comedy my husband has a small part in. So that was fun!

The So-Bad-It’s-Good. Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest takes the cake for this category. Storylines include: a strain of corn that can grow in a city plot with terrible soil, out of season no less; an adoptive father who tries to sell said strain of corn to his company; a twelve-year-old who preaches the gospel of He Who Walks Behind the Rows and gets tons of hardened “urban” teenagers to follow him; Charlize Theron getting brutally killed by a corn monster; and basketball. Pure gold.

The Meh. The Blood Lands definitely belongs here. It was a serviceable home invasion movie that reminded me a lot of Them (Ils, in French); sadly, though, it wasn’t as suspenseful, and the ending... well, I guess I prefer my endings to be more harrowing than uplifting. As I mentioned in my tweet, I also wasn’t a fan of the non-scary pig masks. The Green Inferno also lands squarely in the “meh” for me (full review here).

The Ugly. I deliberated a lot before putting Exeter in this slot… but after much consideration, and despite some lovely, creepy visuals, I have to admit that this movie just didn’t do it for me. The kills were cool, but the overall movie wasn’t scary at all, and the slick production could only go so far in concealing the fact that this movie had no heart. Knock Knock is also “ugly,” but for different reasons. Much like The Green Inferno, I think what Roth was purportedly trying to say and what he did say are two very different things, the latter being fairly nonsensical. However, where I could sort of ignore that and just ride the thrills with The Green Inferno, I found little to enjoy in Knock Knock. It didn’t scare me, and it certainly didn’t get me clutching my pearls like I’m sure it was meant to. I found the mind games tame, the story muddled, and the tone inconsistent. Sorry, guys!

Tune in two weeks from now for the rest of the challenge results. And let me know in the comments what movies you’re watching this October!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Lyle

Hey ya'll, I have a review of Stewart Thorndike's indie movie Lyle up at The Bloodlust podcast website! Head on over if you want my take on the movie Thorndike calls "Rosemary's Baby with lesbians." And be sure to check out The Bloodlust podcast, too - it's one of my favorites, and a great source for witty, insightful discussions about horror movies from some smart women.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Review: The Green Inferno

To begin with, let me explain that this will be a review of the movie only. I realize that entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but I feel that the various claims of racism and exploitation surrounding the film have been explored by others, and written about far better, than I could hope to do myself. For a rundown of some of those issues, I suggest you visit Amazon Watch. I’ll be discussing The Green Inferno purely in terms of its strengths and weaknesses as a piece of horror cinema.

The story centers on Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a naïve college freshmen (and daughter of a United Nations lawyer, conveniently) who takes up the cause of deforestation as much out of a desire to do good as a longing to catch the eye of the charismatic student activist leader, Alejandro (Ariel Levy). She joins the group in the eleventh hour, and is almost immediately whisked away by tiny plane to the Amazonian rainforest to partake in a protest along with Alejandro; his territorial girlfriend, Kara; affable Jonah, who is smitten with Justine; and a slew of other shallowly-written characters.

Surprisingly, despite a few minor life-or-death complications, the group appears successful at stopping a crew from bulldozing an Amazonian tribe’s woodland home. As the students toast one another on the plane ride home, though, the plane crashes – directly in the backyard of the tribe they just went to great lengths to save. Unfortunately, the tribespeople don’t know about the students’ friendly agenda – and it seems unlikely they’d care even if they did – and promptly get down to the business of killing and eating them. Naturally.

The first half hour or so follows Justine around her college campus, introducing the characters to come to slaughter and trafficking in some cringingly wooden acting, which I blame more than anything on clunky writing. It’s a strings-exposed setup that’s merely there to make the audience question the motivations and ability of these characters, and to move the audience along to the “good stuff” – i.e., the gore.

I don’t mind that the characters are stereotypes – the disposable character is a mainstay in horror, for better or worse – so much as I mind that they’re the wrong stereotypes. The stoner-slacker-guy, the girls who starve themselves in the name of social justice (but really just want an excuse to be anorexic) - these people, whom Eli Roth has called “slacktivists” in interviews, do exist in the real world and are a real problem, taking up issues they know little about and actively causing harm through their ignorance. The only hitch is that they wouldn’t be traveling into the heart of the Amazon to chain themselves to bulldozers; they’d remain in the shelter of their college enclaves, ranting from their safe little soapboxes.

As for Alejandro, he may not turn out to be quite the pious protestor he seems, but if anything, he’s more ambitious and worldly than expected. When he says something along the lines of, “The good guys are in bed with the bad guys because it’s the only way to get things done,” it’s actually a chillingly honest statement about how the world - and environmentalism - often works. But this truth doesn’t coherently follow with the rest of the story, which is full of mixed and conflicting messages. What is the film really saying? That the students should have kept their idealistic noses out of it, and they deserved to become grisly meals? That the tribe should have simply been allowed to die off? That is, after all, the only other possibility provided within the narrative. Ultimately, Roth’s point is so muddled that it seems risible to claim he set out to say anything at all.

All of this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie. Once the main characters are in the clutches of the tribe, and the film segues into a straightforward homage to the cannibal horror movies of old, it becomes a far more enjoyable affair. Well, “enjoyable” may not be the word everyone would use to describe watching the slicing and dicing of characters carry out onscreen, but I was relieved to find that Inferno wasn’t as stomach churning as I’d feared it would be. Granted, my tolerance for gore is somewhere in the medium-to-high range, and the first cannibal killing is grotesque to the extreme and very difficult to watch. But as far as carnage goes, it’s all downhill from there, and the film makes better use of the suspense of imagining what could happen rather than what does happen. It’s a fun ride for a while – tempered or heightened somewhat depending on your affinity for toilet humor – as the audience truly has no idea if anyone will make it out of the Amazon alive.

The cinematography in the Amazon is also a feast for the eyes, with the tribespeople painted a blood red that stands out starkly against the sweeping, lush green panoramas. Inferno was filmed farther out in the Amazon than any film before it, a feat that is both fascinating in its backstory and well worth the effort for what ends up onscreen. It’s clear that Inferno was a labor of love for Roth, who obviously knows and appreciates his film history and has a lot of talent behind the camera. I only wish he had employed a better writer to iron out some of the glaring story problems.

And there are more snares along the way. A subplot about female genital mutilation is undeniably disturbing and provides a great deal of suspense, but it’s completely nonsensical even in the context of a movie so far removed from reality. FGM is a terrifying, dangerous practice, but one that is reserved for members of the tribe or group, typically considered an honor designed to bring a young girl into womanhood. Why would the tribespeople perform this honorific ritual on a “gringo” they clearly plan on eating later? Frankly, there is no logical reason, other than a bid to add a level of horror and anticipation that the filmmaker couldn’t conjure up some other way. It works – it was definitely the part I found most unnerving – but at the expense of subjecting three female characters to rape (the women are probed with a sharp object in order to determine the status of their virginity), I’d have preferred not to see it at all.

The ending is a bit of a head scratcher. I won’t go into details, but again it struggles to say something – anything – about the ethics of modern activism. However, what it’s saying is nearly impossible to decipher within the larger framework of the movie. When all is said and done, Roth would have been better off admitting that The Green Inferno is simply a fun, gory sendup to Cannibal Holocaust and leaving it at that. All the purported social commentary does nothing but make him seem as clueless as his characters and make savvier watchers feel guilty for spending their money on it at all. I think Roth may have a great film in him, and I hope to see it someday. I just don’t think this is it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

31 Horror Films in 31 Days Challenge

It's the first day of October! This is my favorite month, for all the obvious reasons, not least of which being the 31 Horror Films in 31 Days Challenge. Started by the always excellent Daniel Kraus, this challenge has been going on for seven years, though last year was my first time participating. You can read the rules here (though they're pretty simple - watch at least 31 horror movies, old or new, between now and Halloween), and follow the hashtag on Twitter here. As usual, I can be followed @ClaireCWrites; I'll be updating my challenge status every day if you want to follow along, and I'll post a roundup of all the movies I watched and what I thought of them at the end of the month! (You can see last year's roundup here.) Not to spoil anything, but today is feeling like a Friday the 13th kind of day...

Are you doing the challenge? Of course you are! Why wouldn't you?